Last September, at one point, the Astros staged an improbable ninth-inning comeback against the Angels. I don’t remember a whole lot of the details anymore, but there is still one play that sticks out in my mind, because it stuck out in my mind back then. George Springer neither started the rally nor ended it, but he did keep it alive with the bases empty and the Astros down to their last strike. Behold Springer in a 1-and-2 count against Huston Street:
All right, it’s one ball in play, and it was very nearly caught. So perhaps it was very nearly forgettable, but look at how Springer stayed with an attempted strikeout slider and made good contact the other way. It works well here as a representation of what George Springer got up to. It happened quietly — the Astros themselves were a bigger story than Springer as an individual, and theirs was a roster with Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel. Springer, for his part, missed time with injuries, which I’m sure he’d love to knock off. But there in the shadows, Springer turned himself into something less extreme. There was one big question mark hovering over his career, and now it’s been at least partially addressed.
In the time before the arrival of Miguel Sano, Springer was a hot item and a popular conversation topic. With Sano, right now, we wonder how he’s going to balance the power and the strikeouts. That’s what we used to wonder about Springer, who tore through the minors but who did so while constantly swinging and missing. He looked like an extraordinarily unusual player, and then when Springer made his debut in 2014, he posted what was then the lowest individual contact rate of the PITCHf/x era. (Sano has since gone one-tenth of a point lower.) Springer also had a 127 wRC+. He was more or less as advertised, and at least the early indications suggested it could work as a package of tools.
The calendar flipped and, this past regular season, Springer batted 451 times. Just glance at the numbers and nothing in particular stands out. A 129 wRC+. A .459 slugging percentage. What it looks like, at first, is that Springer cemented himself as a major-league player, despite the profile. Really, though, the profile changed. Think about that video embedded above. Though Springer still showed power, and though Springer still struck out, he pulled himself somewhat back toward the pack.
Springer chopped almost nine points off his strikeout rate. He didn’t give away anything in terms of walks, and while he hit for less power, he drilled far more line drives. Springer’s overall contact rate rose from 61% to about 70%. His out-of-zone contact rate rose from 35% to 55%. When you put these gains into some context, it’s easy to see how significant they are.
The last eight years, during the PITCHf/x era, there are 1,636 cases of a player batting at least 250 times in consecutive seasons. Springer’s contact rate rose 8.5 percentage points, making it the single greatest such increase. His out-of-zone contact rate rose 20 percentage points, making it the single greatest such increase. These rates do move around, and sometimes they move quite a bit, but they haven’t moved like Springer’s did. Not during the present era.
The easiest interpretation is that Springer intentionally cut down on his swing. We just saw Matt Carpenter sacrifice contact for power. Carpenter made a lot of contact, so he could afford to let some go. Springer hit for a lot of power, so he could afford to let some of that go. It’s not like he turned into a singles hitter:
And the whiffs are still there. Even with the contact-rate hike, Springer’s around names like Ryan Howard and Chris Davis. But the important thing is now he has company. Now his whiffing frequency isn’t borderline unprecedented. Assuming there’s still enough power in there, we have a better idea that this profile can work long-term. It might make Springer a little less interesting, for nerds like us, but it seems to make him more safe.
Supporting the idea that Springer cut down on his swing is that he pulled far fewer balls in play. His focus was more up the middle and toward right field — his pull rate dropped from 43% to 34%. The bulk of his changes are reflected in this .gif that might kind of overwhelm you at first. This shows a comparison of Springer’s 2014 and his 2015. On the right, the familiar spray charts. On the left, plots of contact rate, from the catcher’s perspective. Watch it a few times if you need to. Of course you’ll need to. What are you, Superman?
Springer didn’t get much better at making contact up. Instead, his gains were low, and in particular low and away. This is why I chose to show that highlight against Huston Street. Springer made himself less vulnerable against what had previously been strikeout pitches, and you can see in the spray chart how there are more liners to center and right in the most recent season. The indicators are there of a hitter who didn’t want to strike out so much anymore. With two strikes in 2014, Springer struck out 56% of the time, slugging .183. With two strikes in 2015, Springer struck out 45% of the time, slugging .351. He made himself more difficult to get out, in what was a critical sophomore season.
The easy thing is looking back. It’s harder to look ahead, at least if you want to be accurate, and I don’t know what Springer’s going to be in 2016, but what I know is now he’s shown something we weren’t sure if he could do. It wasn’t great for his power output, granted, but Springer showed greater control at the plate, and he certainly had excess power to give. This makes him a safer bet, seemingly, if less arguably unique. Springer as a hitter seems more complete, and if you want to dream, you can think about consolidation. The upside is that Springer blends the contact and the power by picking his spots, and then the sky is the limit. Even as is, he’s an excellent player. Maybe now less extreme than before, but he’s still done something others haven’t done. You gotta give him that.
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